My Civil War Memory class has finally finished watching Shenandoah and students are now working on comparative reviews that incorporate their understanding of Gone With the Wind. Shenandoah represents a sharp transition in popular memory of the war in the roughly twenty-five years since the premier of GWTW. I want to wrap up this series of posts [see here and here] with just a few more thoughts that connect to the movie’s conscious attempt to steer clear of as much regional controversy as possible. Apart from the battle scenes there is nothing that might alienate any one demographic. As I noted in the first post, the movie ignores the issue of slavery apart from an early scene where Charlie Anderson declares it to be immoral. The slave boy who befriends the youngest Anderson boy is freed by a black Union soldier, but he is encouraged to embrace his freedom by one of the Anderson daughters. Toward the end of the movie a black woman, who is never identified as a slave, cares for Charlie Anderson’s granddaughter.
Most interesting, however, is that the only threats and violence that visit the Anderson family come from fellow white Southerners. The Union army may have mistakenly taken the young boy prisoner, but there is a very understanding colonel who offers to help Anderson in his quest to find his son. Agents of the Confederate government in Richmond attempt to confiscate the family’s animals while a Confederate colonel pushes Charlie Anderson to acknowledge his responsibility in the war by giving up his children to the army. Late in the movie the eldest Anderson boy is accidentally shot by a 16-yr. old Confederate soldier.
But the most shocking scene is the murder of son Jacob and wife Ann who stayed on the family farm while the rest looked for the youngest Anderson boy. The scene takes the audience by surprise and while Jacob’s brutal murder is captured by the camera, the death of his wife is left to the imagination. Once the party returns to the home they are greeted by the doctor, who informs them of the murders. Interestingly, the doctor refers to these men as “scavengers” even though they are clearly Confederate deserters. Without intending to this scene, along with much of the rest of the movie challenges the Lost Cause assumption of a united Confederate populace. It also touches on an aspect of the Civil War that we rarely discuss and that is the violence that was perpetrated between white Virginians, especially in the Shenandoah Valley, which was used by large numbers of Confederate soldiers who had deserted from the army. It would be interesting to know whether moviegoers, especially in the Southern states, understood these men to be Confederate soldiers.
I know that my students thoroughly enjoyed the movie and I have to say that it has moved up in my list of favorite Civil War movies.